A first look at Mellow Mushroom | Rock Candy

Monday, June 24, 2013

A first look at Mellow Mushroom

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2013 at 6:34 PM


When Mellow Mushroom arrived in Atlanta in the early 1970s, it was designed to capitalize on the carefree attitude and values of the hippie nation. Looking to draw attention from the younger, hipper crowd, the fresh-faced pizza joint hoped to mark itself as the alternative to your parents’ and grandparents’ pizza restaurant. Feeding off some of the debauchery of the late 60s, even the name “Mellow Mushroom” was meant to embody “coolness” in every way. My father, in fact, was living in Atlanta during that time and remembers the atmosphere surrounding Mellow Mushroom’s opening. “Everyone wanted to be mellow—it played off Donovan’s big hit ‘Mellow Yellow’—and every hippie out there was familiar with the magical properties of mushrooms.” (I assume he’s not talking about chanterelles here.) He went on to say that as a bunch of misguided Atlanta youths, “many a late night hanging out with friends was spent eating a cold slice of their pizza and a beverage.” Suffice it to say, I think he enjoyed the pizza.

Now, after 39 years and thousands of pizzas served, Mellow Mushroom finds itself settling down in Little Rock, Arkansas…in West Little Rock, no less. The air around this Mellow Mushroom is probably much less hazy than it was in those days, there’s probably much fewer cases of the “munchies” surrounding their tables (perhaps not?), fewer people are talking about the last time they saw Led Zeppelin play live. Today you’re more likely to find a youth soccer team than a flower child. But the new WLR location is brightly colored, clean, and decorated with all sorts of memorabilia and signage from generations past. It’s a large space, able to accommodate a sizable number of people, but it’s no stretch to say it’s probably the busiest restaurant in Arkansas right now. On weeknights, the waits have been turning many weaker, more impatient folks away. (Something WLR folks are getting used to...right, Local Lime? Chuy’s?)

I stopped in last weekend to get a first look at the place and to sample a bit of what they had to offer. This was my first time with the chain, but given the amount of excitement and level of hype surrounding the coming of this place, expectations were probably slightly higher than they would have been otherwise.

I’d heard from many people to start off their “pretzels,” which come in a few varieties: garlic and parmesan, kosher salt and butter, or cinnamon sugar and honey. I went with the savory garlic parmesan option, but was fairly underwhelmed by the popular starter. These represent little more than their basic pizza dough, twisted into the traditional pretzel knot, baked up and doused with cheese and garlic butter. Their pizza dough, in general, was fine, but these came out slightly overcooked, leaving them chewy and tough, rather than soft and golden brown as a good pretzel should be. They’re paired with a cup of their pizza sauce, which was also a bit on the boring side, and I simply didn’t feel that there was much need to ever order these again. Nothing bad, but nothing particularly inspiring.

My pizza was a big improvement, however. I went with the “Gourmet White,” a pie I have had my eye on since the first time I’d read Mellow’s menu. The pie in question involves a base of olive oil and garlic, no red sauce whatsoever, with a few sun-dried tomatoes tossed in adding a nice acidic note. A trio of provolone, feta, and mozzarella cheeses goes on next and the pie is finally finished with sliced onions and Roma tomatoes. The blend of cheeses was lovely, all nicely melted, creamy and rich. The feta was subtle, not overwhelmingly tangy, which I appreciated, and nicely balanced with the other ingredients. I am always a big supporter of freshly sliced tomatoes on my pizza. I enjoy the way they soften and melt down with baking; the thinly sliced onions were similarly tender and delicious.

The crust was no slouch either. While I was not initially overly impressed with the dough based on my experience with the “pretzels,” the pizza crust came out nicely baked, golden brown, with a crisp exterior and soft chewy interior. A respectable crust, indeed—key to any exemplary pizza pie.

I guess the real question is whether I will find myself going back to Mellow Mushroom in the future. That, my friends, is a definite ‘yes.’ I’m looking forward to sampling some of their more exotic creations and combinations on the menu. I’ll probably avoid their version of the Hawaiian, the “Maui Wowie,” as I firmly believe pineapple should not come within 100 yards of any respectable pizza, but I’m not opposed with their “Philosopher’s Pie,” with steak, Portobello mushrooms, artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, provolone, feta and mozzarella cheeses…or even their “Kosmic Karma,” with feta and mozzarella cheese, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, and pesto. These pies don’t come cheap, however. My medium specialty pie was upwards of $20, but the slices are sizable, and one or two such slices would likely be sufficient for the more dainty eaters.

Whether you go soon, and decide to battle the crowds, or wait until things die down a little, I think you’ll find something to like at Mellow Mushroom and I, for one, am happy they’ve arrived in Little Rock.

Mellow Mushroom: 16103 Chenal Pkwy, Little Rock, (501) 379-9157. Mon - Thu: 11:00 am - 10:00 pm, Fri - Sat: 11:00 am - 11:00 pm, Sun: 11:00 am - 10:00 pm

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